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No. 6 Alabama, LSU embrace rare chance for SEC title

SEC Men's Basketball Tournament - Alabama v Mississippi State

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 12: Herbert Jones #1 of the Alabama Crimson Tide drives to the basket against Deivon Smith #5 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the first half of their quarterfinal game in the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 12, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

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Robert Horry and Latrell Sprewell were wearing Alabama colors the last time the Crimson Tide won a Southeastern Conference tournament championship in 1991.

The last time LSU won an SEC tourney was 1980 when former Tigers coach Dale Brown would take the team to the Elite Eight. It was a year before their first of two Final Four appearances that decade.

On Sunday afternoon, one of those long championship droughts will end when Alabama (23-6) takes on LSU (18-8) in the SEC tournament final at Nashville, Tenn.

After not winning an SEC tournament game since 2016, LSU has won back-to-back contests to reach the final for the first time since 1993 - the year after Shaquille O’Neal left the Tigers’ program for the NBA.

The sixth-ranked and top-seeded Crimson Tide secured their first berth in the final since 2002 after rallying from a 15-point second-half deficit Saturday against Tennessee.

Herbert Jones, the SEC’s Player of the Year, scored 15 of his 21 points in the second half and finished with 13 rebounds, four assists and three steals.

“At halftime, we decided to just come out and play our brand of basketball,” said Jones, who was also the conference’s defensive player of the year. “We came out and competed on the defensive end and that led to our offense.”

Alabama, playing without freshman Joshua Primo (sprained left MCL), took the lead for good on a 3-pointer by Keon Ellis with 4:07 left. Jahvon Quinerly (19 points) hit a pair of free throws with 15.5 seconds left to seal the outcome.

“It was one of those gut-check wins, where guys expect to win,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “I think we’re 6-3 in one- or two-possession games this year. Last year, I believe, we were 4-7. It’s one of those deals where our guys have changed their attitude. They expect to win.”

Third-seeded LSU lost both games against Alabama during the regular season by 30- and 18-point margins. The most recent meeting was Feb. 3 when the host Crimson Tide earned a 78-60 victory.

But the Tigers already upended one surging top-10 team when they beat eighth-ranked Arkansas 78-71 on Saturday, snapping the Razorbacks’ 12-game winning streak against conference opponents.

Cameron Thomas totaled 21 points and Ja’Vonte Smart had 13 of his 19 points in the second half. Darius Days had 13 points and eight rebounds, while Trendon Watford had nine points, seven rebounds and three steals.

“We got tons of contributions, very proud of how we’ve been playing,” LSU coach Will Wade said. “I thought we showed some toughness last night and tonight. We made some key defensive stops, got just enough rebounds when we needed to and it’s a huge win.”

LSU broke a 52-all tie in the second half with a 12-0 run which gave them the lead for good. Arkansas cut the deficit to 72-71 with a 9-0 run before Smart put LSU back up by three with 24.6 seconds left. Eric Gaines came up with the steal on the ensuing possession, and he and Smart each hit a pair of free throws to seal the outcome.

“I feel like I needed to lead the team to get this victory,” Smart said. “I just wanted to get to the championship game. We owe them some respect and I think this is the way to get it.”